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Ashes: Letting Go

Date: 12/03/2023/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Ashes: Letting Go
12 March 2023
Free Community Church

“The Water” – The Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42)

Adapted from Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans

I went to the well at noon.

Sun burning my neck, sweat stinging my eyes, I sighed to think how much heavier that water jar would seem on the journey back. Most of the women gather at first light, their laughter carrying over the countryside like birdsong as they gossip and banter.

In the desert, wells give and draw life, their waters evocative of the womb. Wells are where our ancestors arranged marriages, fell in love, and received word of impending births. Wells are where God starts something new.

I was not a woman who belonged at a well.

This spring was named after Jacob, but as I trudged toward it, I thought of Tamar, as I often did. Tamar, the original cursed woman, passed from brother to brother, bearing no children, bringing nothing but death, until finally, through lurid means, she gave that family twins and our people a nation. I saw myself in her story, for I too lived in my father-in-law’s house, waiting for a little boy to become a man. That boy’s mother had every reason to fear me, to hate me. After four weddings and four tragedies, I cannot blame her.

As the sun beat down light, I saw a figure seated at the well. A man. I went closer, spied the knotted tassels on his coat confirming he was a Jew, and felt a rush of relief. Good. We won’t have to talk. A man in this country rarely speaks to a woman. A Jew to a Samaritan? Never.

At last I reached the well, collapsing on the other side to catch my breath.

“Will you give me a drink?’

His voice startled me. For a moment, I doubted I’d heard it. What sort of Jew asked a Samaritan for water? They believed even our pitchers were unclean.

“You are a Jewish man, and I am a Samaritan woman,” I said with a laugh, wary of meeting his eyes. “And you’re asking me for water?”

“If you knew who I was,” he answered, “you’d be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, flowing water. I would give you the kind of water you really crave.”

Now he had my attention. The man was young, maybe thirty. He had no jar, rope, or buckets. He must have been traveling from Judea to Galilee.

“Artesian water from this well?” I pressed. “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. Are you saying you are better than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it? Are you saying you know something he didn’t?”

Jews were so smug about religion. No doubt this man never dreamed a Samaritan woman thought of such things.

“Everyone who drinks water from this well will get thirsty again,” he said. “But whoever drinks the water I offer will remain satisfied, for they will have a gushing spring inside of them that never runs dry.”

“Well then give me some of that water!” I laughed, playing along. “Then I won’t have to hike out to this well every day.”

The man fell silent. Assuming I’d offended him, I prepared my bucket and lowered it into the well.

“Go, call your husband and come back,” he said, breaking the silence.

My jaw clenched.

“I have no husband,” I said.

“Indeed you don’t. You’ve had five husbands, haven’t you? And the man you live with now is not one of them.”

Five. This man knew more than what local gossip could carry. He knew my secret. He knew me.

Shaking, I let the rope slip. My bucket plunged into the water, and I staggered backward.

“I see you are a prophet,” I said, sitting down.

The man said nothing in reply, so for a while we just sat there together under the sun, sweating and thirsty, a strange understanding growing between us. He went to the well and pulled the bucket up.

“So tell me something,” I said, recovering my courage. “Samaritans say the place of rightful worship is that mountain over there, but Jews say it is in Jerusalem. Who is right?”

It may seem a strange thing to ask a prophet who has just laid your life bare, naming the thing you never dared to voice out loud, but if God was speaking to me through a Jew, I had some questions. The enmity between our people stretched back centuries. Time and geography had given us different cultures, different practices, different sacred places.

The Jews destroyed our temple on Mount Gerizim a hundred years before I was born, then banned us from worshiping in Jerusalem. If this man was a prophet, it meant righteousness belonged to the Jews. And if righteousness belonged to the Jews, a woman like me had no place to meet God.

“Don’t worry about that,” he answered, a smile in his voice. “Salvation will come through the Jews, yes, but it will be for all people. The day is coming when all the barriers between us will collapse. God is Spirit, after all, and Truth. You can’t build a temple around Spirit. You can’t lock Truth in a shrine. The kind of worship God wants is the kind of worship without walls.”

He paused. “But you know that already, daughter, don’t you? You have known all along.”

He crouched down and looked me straight in the eyes, seeing me in a way no man had ever seen me before.

“They say a Messiah will come and make all these things plain,” I ventured from the ground.

“I–the one speaking to you–am he.”

At that, he handed me the bucket of water. I brought it to my lips, lifted my head, and drank deep of the coolest, richest water I ever tasted. I drank and drank and drank. I drank until I could no longer breathe.

When I finished, I wiped my mouth on my sleeve and handed the bucket back to the man, who, to my amazement, threw his head back and gulped the rest of it down, dousing his dusty face with the last splash that remained. For a moment, I doubted what I’d just witnessed. This man, this Jew–this Messiah–drank from my defiled cup. And with relish.

He saw my surprise and laughed, the deep belly laugh of a man who sees our religious absurdities for what they are. I joined him, all the tired and thirsty cells in my body awake with life once again. It was like giving birth and being born at the same time.

“It was like giving birth and being born at the same time.”

This is a fresh take on the story of the Samaritan woman found in John 4.

I love this version written by Rachel Held Evans because she helps bring the story to life, making it so real and visceral, as if we were the ones interacting with Jesus.

This account is the longest conversation Jesus had with anyone in the Gospels. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this longest conversation Jesus had, was with a woman who was non-Jew. As we know, Jesus is constantly challenging the religious absurdities of our man-made rules and our unjust social norms.

But on a more personal level, what I see happening in this encounter is Jesus helping the Samaritan woman dismantle and let go of her unhelpful myths so that she can fully live out her Spirit-led truth.

So let’s explore together.

Question 1 (Open)
What were some of the Samaritan woman’s unhelpful myths and narratives?

But Jesus had something different, something new to offer her. He wanted her to have a new story. Not one that erases all of her past. But one that adds on and expands on what she thinks she knows about herself.

The new narrative Jesus offers her through his words and actions:
She is worthy, she is loved, she belongs in the kin-dom of God.
God desires to quench her thirst with life-giving water.
True worship is not about a place. True worship takes place when we engage our spirits in the pursuit of truth.

John 4:22-24 (MSG) 
But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.

23-24 “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth.

That’s the kind of people Abba is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

Our true selves. Not the one-dimensional story that people use to describe us, or the quick judgements we make of ourselves or others. Our true selves before God. Not the narratives of our past that go round and round in our heads, nor the stereotypes that people place on us. No.

We come before God, who knows our every thought, our every hope, our every gift and our every broken part, every single beautiful thing about us, every wonderful story and even the ones that aren’t so great. We come before God, and God offers us a cool drink of water, a place to rest, and God listens to all those stories, and all our questions, once again. That’s what happens at the well where we encounter God time and again, drawing deep from the waters of grace and love.

After all, “Wells are where God starts something new.”

As Richard Rohr says,

“New beginnings invariably come from old false things that are allowed to die.” -Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters

What are the false things that need to die in order for new beginnings to take place in your life? The Spirit of God is doing the birthing work in us.

Jesus came to help us dismantle and let go of our unhelpful myths so that we can fully live out our Sprit-led truth.

Not only that. Like Jesus, we can offer a new life-giving narrative to others through our words and actions.

But how can we even begin to do all this?

Start by cultivating our curiosity.

Like the Samaritan woman who had many questions for Jesus, her journey began with curiosity. Be curious about your own narratives – where does this belief come from? Is it helpful or harmful to me or to others? Be curious also about the narratives of other people. Don’t jump in too quickly with your own assumptions or answers.

Just stay curious, and allow your curiosity to surface questions and deepen your own understanding. Our curiosity can help push past our assumptions as we learn to craft good questions. And it’s important that we wait long enough to really listen to one another’s hearts.

Listening to God and one another.
That’s what Jesus did. Jesus took time to listen to the woman because it is in the listening that we learn to dismantle the myths that we have bought into about ourselves, our world, about God, and each other. First, we need to listen to what the Spirit of God may be saying to us about our own thoughts, beliefs, assumptions.

Then, we learn to listen to one another. Listening is not just the information you gather. It’s about listening out for the tone, pain, and inflection. It’s when we listen for nuance, experience, anxiety and celebration.

“It is uncovered when we hear the depth, and the humanity, and the conviction, and the confusion that someone conveys beneath their words to us face to face. All of that takes a profound curiosity that sometimes does not come easily. But it is one I am convinced might actually start to make us well by freeing us from some of the things we’ve been chasing. So that we can actually decide who it is that we want to become.” – Jeremy Duncan, Commons Church

Letting go of our unhelpful myths and letting in the Spirit’s life-giving narratives.

When I say “unhelpful myths or narratives,” I mean the myths that you bought into about yourself, about the world, about God, and about others.

What is your story?

What is the story that you tell yourself about who you are, what happened to you, how others have treated you, etc.?

The Samaritan woman had her own story…a story that she told herself. Some of it was helpful, and some was not.

Question 2 (Open)
What are the myths you’ve bought into about yourself, about the world, about God, about others?

But Jesus has something different, something new to offer us. He wants us to have a new story. Not one that erases all of our past. But one that adds on and expands on what we think we know about ourselves.

Time to Listen in Stillness
Allow time for us to sit in stillness for a while so we can listen to the whispers of God’s Spirit.

Question 3 (Open)
What is the new life-giving narrative God might be speaking into your life?

Offering a new life-giving narrative to others through our words and actions.

We are thankful that God offers each of us a new life-giving narrative. But it doesn’t just stop here. I hope you allow the Spirit of God to continue speaking this life-giving narrative into your heart and mind, until it sinks deep down into your soul. I believe that is when real change happens.

At the same time, we are called to offer a new life-giving narrative to others through our words and actions. How might the Spirit of God be moving you to offer new life-giving narratives to others through your words and actions?

This past week, we just celebrated International Women’s Day. This year, I had the privilege of being invited as a faith leader to celebrate the resilience, courage, and strength of women migrants in Singapore.

HOME (Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics) runs a shelter for exploited and abused migrant workers, and I was so thankful to be able to spend some time with the women who come from different nationalities, cultures, and faiths. These brave women left their countries and homes for the sake of building better futures for themselves and their families, and I am in awe of them.

It was the first time we had an interfaith initiative, and the various faith leaders took turns to share words of encouragement, and a prayer for all the women.

Then we gathered in smaller groups, and during our small group huddle time, I teared together with my group of women as I reminded them that they are worthy, they are loved, and they matter to us. Later, when some of the women came to me for prayer and a hug, I held them for a long time as they sobbed in my arms. Something stirred deep inside me, and I could feel the Spirit of God moving amongst us.

At the end, the organizers thanked us and said it was a powerful session, and the women really felt comforted and encouraged. But I think I was the one who received much more, and I left feeling moved and inspired to continue the work of empowering and uplifting women, especially those who need the important reminder that they are worthy, they are loved, and they matter.

What about you? How might the Spirit of God be moving you to offer new life-giving narratives to others around you through your words and actions? And what new life-giving narratives is God speaking into your life today?

It all begins with:
Start by cultivating our curiosity.
Listening to God and one another.
Letting go of our unhelpful myths and letting in the Spirit’s life-giving narratives.
Offering a new life-giving narrative to others through our words and actions.

Today, Jesus is inviting you back to the well of encounter.

From this deep well, Jesus offers you living water of grace, love, connection, compassion, salvation and the quenching of that thirst deep within your soul. All you have to do is to bring your true selves in worship and you will meet him here.